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(Photo: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

Last year, Artnet Magazine’s Charlie Finch predicted that the High Line would lead to rising rents, sounding the death knell for the Chelsea gallery scene. While this has not yet happened, the well-liked aerial greenway is arguably having an antiseptic effect on the arts neighborhood, with Exhibit A being the recent destruction of a storied graffiti mural on West 23rd Street, in keeping with a city program to spiff up the buildings around the successful park. The prominent “REVS/COST” mural, featuring the names of the two graffiti artists in enormous white letters, was removed with chemicals over the weekend, according to the Vanishing New York blog (which has photos).

While the giant white letters may not have much significance to those who are not graffiti fans, they hold an important place in the history of New York street art, arising out of the retrenching of that scene after mayor Rudolf Giuliani’s crackdown in the early ‘90s. The exploits of Revs have been featured on This American Life, and profiled in the New York Times, with Randy Kennedy saying in 2005 that his work “upended many traditional notions of graffiti and helped inspire a new generation of so-called street artists.”

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Rescue Company 3, the Bronx (Photo: Jeff Goldberg/Esto for Polshek Partnership)

The map of Michael Bloomberg’s New York bears the scars of vast, unfinished dreams of renewal. Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, Coney Island, Willets Point, ground zero, Governors Island, the Gowanus Canal—all those glittering megaplans, derailed, deferred, or debased. Yet the Bloomberg administration can claim triumphs at a tiny scale: Station house by station house, library by library, the city has been doggedly smuggling high-level architecture to the neighborhoods that need it most.

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Justin Davidson
New York Magazine

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Construction fences are coming down from around the dour travertine bulk of the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center, revealing the spacious new lobby of Alice Tully Hall through high walls of glass.

Last year’s crash may have halted a mighty transformation of the New York skyline, though Tully is among the welcome fruits of the boom that New York will enjoy in 2009 and beyond.

Pundits already have scribbled their obituaries for the past era’s architectural excesses. The Museum of Modern Art’s $858 million expansion in 2004 is usually deemed Exhibit A, though the Tokyo architect Yoshio Taniguchi serenely united its many moving parts without empty grandiosity. Underlying the criticism is a yearning for a more intimate MoMA and, by extension, for a less intimidating city. The museum’s vastly greater size and the millions who throng its halls are signs of success and dynamism we may soon deeply miss.

MoMA will age more gracefully than the decades-long remake of the Metropolitan Museum, overseen by Philippe de Montebello, who departed in 2008. The Greek and Roman galleries, reopened in 2007, are among the very few spaces that invitingly display the huge collections. I’m hoping this appeal extends to the renovated American Wing, which reopens this spring.

Most of New York’s most extravagant architectural ideas never got beyond breathtaking computer renderings. Thomas Krens exited the Guggenheim last year, having largely failed to extend the museum’s brand beyond the fronds of titanium and glass waving in Bilbao, Spain.

Instead we were treated to a tiresome debate about what color to paint Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral on Fifth Avenue. Such small-bore battles too often consume this city, which is noisy with activists fearing the new. And, regrettably, the new too often deserves the hostility.

The city needs to fix a landmarks process that favors defacement, though the economic bust may save us from the pendulum swing to historic-preservation absolutism.

The Roaring Twenties left behind a soaring, stair-stepping skyline, decried at the time as vulgar. This boom decade leaves us with timid boxes skinned in murky gray glass: The Trump SoHo (by Handel Architects with the Rockwell Group), Slazer Enterprises’ 50-story One Madison Park and Extell Development’s Ariel East on the Upper West Side. (Condo design factory Cetra/Ruddy cranked out the latter two.) The art was in their cynical manipulation of the zoning code.

After Tully Hall, Lincoln Center will open an expanded and renovated Juilliard School and finish overhauling its 65th Street frontages and iconic plazas. It’s all the work of Diller Scofidio & Renfro, architects whose talents include navigating the center’s snake pit of competing egos and agendas.

Too bad Lincoln Center hasn’t been able to work similar miracles with the acoustically challenged Avery Fisher Hall. The New York State Theater, in the midst of technical and cosmetic fixes, will likely remain a hostile place to view performances by the struggling City Opera.

The Friends of the High Line, also with Diller Scofidio & Renfro, have steered an unloved 1.5 mile railroad roadbed into a lushly meadowed park that’s now almost complete — to amazingly little controversy.

Metal and glass condo towers muscled their way skyward in the traditional gold-coast districts, though they also popped up in numbing metal-and-glass uniformity in Long Island City and the Dumbo and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn — neighborhoods once defined by aluminum-sided row houses and artist-ready industrial lofts.

Many city neighborhoods will benefit for years from long- overdue investments, both private and public. Broken-windowed yet sturdy brick apartment buildings in the Bronx found new life. Square miles of Brooklyn’s East New York, long left for dead, see kids playing in the streets again.

The most confident designs came late in the boom, and the length and depth of this downturn will determine their fate, like the shimmying silhouette of Herzog & de Meuron’s skyscraping Tribeca condo at 56 Leonard St. The same architects gave us street-scaled sensuality in the Coke-bottle-green glass columns of 40 Bond St.

Even if the real-estate market rapidly stabilizes, the crash may at last deep-six the notion that private development can finance costly public infrastructure. The $14 billion Penn Station fiasco has not been heard from since the Spitzer meltdown. Let’s administer the last rites and then begin begging President Obama for some of those economic-recovery billions to help build a proper train station — period.

Bury the Hudson Yards horror and forget about the tower design furtively unveiled last month to crown the Port Authority Bus Terminal. None of these will generate the touted infrastructure-subsidizing dollars, while making construction infinitely more complex.

These boondoggles, along with staggering ineptness at the Ground Zero site, were the boom era’s biggest failures.

New York has a storied history of erecting great public works when times were hard — from the Triboro Bridge to Riverside Park. Now we should prove we can still do it.

James S. Russell
Bloomberg

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Courtesy of Amy C. Elliott/Public Art fund

For more than a century, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge has straddled the East River, linking the piers of lower Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.

Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.

Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of “New York City Waterfalls” – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York’s waterfront.

There “have been attempts, of course,” he says, “but I want to push that further.” If it is a triumph, “Waterfalls” could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world’s most iconic skylines.

“Waterfalls” also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work’s ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.

Historically, public art has forced “you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency,” says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, a major backer of “Waterfalls,” hopes Eliasson’s project has precisely that effect: “People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them…”

For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.

In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs, “The Gates” generated approximately $254 million.

“New York City Waterfalls” is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues “that the city would not get otherwise,” says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.

Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.

“New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected,” Levin says. “Waterfalls,” may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.

“Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline,” Eliasson says.

The next question: “Can we go beyond the spectacle?…”

But Janney [“public art” artist] and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra’s infamous “Tilted Arc,” a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.

“That really marked a sea change,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. “Even though it’s understood that you’re not going to find a piece that all people will like, there’s a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge.”

Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. “They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training,” says Janney.

Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can “make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it.”

One of the intentions of “Waterfalls,” she says, “is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural.”

Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez
Christian Science Monitor

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